Willa: Hello everyone. Part 4 of the series has just been published! This final essay takes a close look at Michael Jackson’s Ghosts, considering it not only as a fascinating film but also as a psychological exploration of the allegations against him, as well as a guide to his aesthetic. It then uses Ghosts as a jumping off point to suggest a radically new genre of art he created in response to the allegations – a type of art so revolutionary we don’t yet even recognize it as art. Here’s a link to Part 4.
Thank you so much to all of you who have provided feedback and shared your ideas and knowledge so generously over the years. Michael Jackson’s work is so rich, with so much to explore, that it truly takes a village to wrap your mind around it. The virtual village that sprang up here has been so helpful and supportive, and I sincerely appreciate that.
I hope you all are feeling safe and content, healthy and strong.
Willa: Hello everyone. Part 3 of the series has just been published! This essay takes a deep dive into the allegations against Michael Jackson, from the Chandler allegations in 1993 through the Leaving Neverland documentary in 2019. It also places these allegations within a historical context. For decades, false allegations of sexual assault and abuse have been used to silence some of America’s most successful and outspoken black men, and this essay places Jackson squarely within that tradition. Here’s a link to Part 3.
Again, much of this information will be familiar to long-time readers. In fact, many of you know a lot more about this than I do. Thank you sincerely for sharing your ideas and knowledge so generously! I have tried to research this essay as thoroughly and carefully as I could. However, if anything I have written is incorrect, please let me know.
I hope you all are staying healthy and happy.
Willa: Hello friends. I wanted to let you know that Part 2 of the series has just been published! This essay looks at some of Jackson’s important early work, including Thriller, to discover how he addressed and to some extent neutralized white fears of black men. It also looks at the apparent changing color of his skin, one of his most powerful and most transgressive works of art. Here’s a link.
Again, many of these ideas will be familiar to long-time readers. I want to thank you again for helping to develop my thinking on these topics by sharing insights and information and by encouraging – and sometimes challenging – my ponderings. For example, my thoughts on his struggles with vitiligo, and how that eventually evolved into an important element of his art, have become much more nuanced because of our discussions.
I hope you all are healthy and doing well.
Willa: Hello everyone. I wanted to let you know that I’ve written a four-part series of essays about how Michael Jackson fought racial prejudice in psychologically complex ways by challenging the sensations of racism. Part 1 was just published on Medium.com. Here’s a link.
The other three essays will be published weekly, with the final one going up August 29th, Michael Jackson’s birthday.
Some of these ideas will be familiar to longtime readers. In fact, in some ways this series of essays is a culmination of many of the things we’ve talked about for the past nine years. I have learned so much from our conversations, and I wanted to thank all of you for participating and generously sharing your knowledge and insights.
I hope you are all safe and well.
Lisha: Hey Willa, I’ve been anxious to talk to you! As we navigate our way through coronavirus and all that our “new normal” entails, I’m so struck by the strong reactions we’ve seen to mask-wearing recommendations.
Willa: Hi Lisha! It’s so great to talk with you again! And I know what you mean about the blowback against wearing a mask. It’s really surprising, isn’t it?
Lisha: It is.
Willa: When news outlets first started reporting about hospitals running low on masks, a local group got together and began creating mask-making kits, and they put out a call for volunteers to sew them up. So I pulled out my sewing machine and started working. Each week a local high school student would drop off mask kits onto my front porch, and she’d pick up the masks I’d finished. I was really impressed with how organized they were, and together we were able to make thousands of masks for the local hospital, a cancer clinic, and others in need.
And of course, the whole time I was sewing, I kept thinking about Michael Jackson and his many masks….
Lisha: How can you work on surgical masks and not think Michael Jackson, right? He wore them like a fashion statement!
Willa: Absolutely! Here’s a fan video that celebrates his ability to rock a face mask.
Lisha: And by the way, Willa, I had no idea you knew how to sew! That’s so cool that you were able to participate in that way.
Willa: You know, I really enjoyed it. My mom has five sisters, and they are all very skilled with sewing, knitting, crocheting, and handcrafts of all kinds, and so were both of my grandmothers. I was taught from an early age to keep my hands busy. And I have to say, it’s really calming for me, especially when I’m trying to process difficult ideas or situations. I just seem to think better when my hands are active. You wouldn’t believe how much knitting I did in grad school!
Lisha: I can’t even imagine knitting in grad school. But over the years working as a musician I’ve noticed that a lot of singers like to knit and crochet in their down time, including Michael Jackson collaborator Siedah Garrett. Surely there is some fascinating psychology research somewhere that could explain this!
Willa: Oh, I love the long vest Siedah Garrett is modelling in the link you shared, Lisha. I wonder if she ever knit or crocheted during downtime in the studio?
Lisha: Yes! I remember her telling the story that she was sitting in the studio knitting when Quincy Jones asked if she wanted to sing “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”!
Willa: Wow! That’s awesome! I love that!
So back to masks, I was really happy when this local group started organizing volunteers to sew facemasks. Working on them helped me personally as I tried to process everything that was happening, it helped local health care workers, and it provided a wonderful opportunity for community bonding in a scary time.
Lisha: I think that’s great, Willa.
Willa: I do too – a real win-win-win situation. But then this odd backlash hit, and I just couldn’t understand it, Lisha. I mean, health care specialists were trying to give guidance on how we could protect ourselves and our communities from this terrible disease. How could anyone possibly be against that? It really made me wonder what was causing such a strong reaction….
Lisha: I was similarly perplexed. For me, the mask is just a simple courtesy we can extend to others. I am more than happy to do something that might keep someone from getting sick.
Willa: Exactly. To my mind, Dan Levy says it best in this short clip:
As he says, “Imagine seeing it not as an infringement on your freedom but rather the simplest, easiest act of kindness that you can do.”
Lisha: Great clip! Thanks for sharing that. It definitely reflects my own views on the topic. But not everyone sees it that way. Some really do perceive the mask as a threat to their individual freedom, as if they are being forced into a display of submission, fear, or weakness.
It makes me wonder if the mask somehow represents a kind of collective weakness and insecurity as well. Has the mask become a symbol of our failure to contain and control the virus? Does the mask signal a collective “loss of face” in terms of American exceptionalism?
Willa: That’s interesting, Lisha. I hadn’t thought of it that way, as a literal “loss of face,” but it makes sense. I’d just been thinking about masks in general, and why they seem to make a lot of people uncomfortable, even hostile. It makes me wonder if some of the anger and scorn directed against Michael Jackson was generated simply by his habit of wearing masks.
Lisha: I think you are onto something, Willa. I know the more I think about the way Michael Jackson wore masks, the more intriguing it gets.
Willa: It really does. You know, when I think of masks – not surgical masks specifically, but masks more generally – I tend to think of Halloween, because that’s the one time when most American kids wear masks. Looked at from that perspective, masks are fun and playful, an important element of a time when kids get to run around in the dark and engage in community-sanctioned games of pretend and imagination. You’re even rewarded for participating with lots of free candy – what could be better than that? And I tend to think that Michael Jackson saw masks in that kind of fun, playful way.
Lisha: It’s spooky and fun all at the same time! Very much like Michael Jackson’s engagement with the horror film genre.
Willa: That’s a great analogy, Lisha. Michael Jackson and others who worked with him, such as John Landis and Rick Baker, have all said that he didn’t like movies that were too frightening or gruesome, and that isn’t what he made. Instead, his take on the horror movie genre is more entertaining than scary, though those films are also doing something really important and complicated, as we’ve talked about a number of times with Thriller and Ghosts. And I think his use of masks is kind of similar. That’s an interesting connection, Lisha.
Masks also remind me of Carnival, an ancient ancestor of Halloween whose roots go back thousands of years. Looked at in that way, masks also signify something far more transgressive – a moment of serious disruption to the established social order. So in that sense, I can see how masks might be threatening. And Michael Jackson was definitely disruptive to social norms. In fact, I see strong echoes of Carnival and this kind of turbulent, unruly use of masks in his Dangerous album cover.
Lisha: That’s interesting Willa. I’d love to better understand how Michael Jackson fits into that history as an artist. Especially now, as we see how the mask is stirring up all kinds of cultural and political meanings.
Willa: I would love to know more about that too. And you’re right, now is a perfect time to dive into that history, and also consider the symbology of surgical masks in particular. Surgical masks are a specific subspecies of mask that signify in unique ways. What I mean is, you can wear a surgical mask as part of a doctor costume, and it’ll perform similar functions of disguise and masquerade as other masks. But it will also carry specific connotations that complicate how we read and respond to it. And of course, Michael Jackson often wore surgical masks, and many commentators struggled with how to interpret that.
Lisha: You are reminding me of a paper I read in grad school titled “Masked States” by Mel Y. Chen. It really sent me down a rabbit hole as far as thinking about Michael Jackson and his use of masks. The paper was written in response to an earlier epidemic, H1N1, and it wasn’t about art per se, but about the cultural and political implications of the mask. Chen uses the analysis of masks to make a much broader point about how state power exploits narratives of “protection” and “threat.” For example, think of how the burqa played a role in constructing a racialized threat to legitimize the US “War on Terror.”
But when I look back at my reading notes on this paper, they aren’t really focused on state power at all, but on loads of Michael Jackson images!
Willa: That’s funny, Lisha!
Lisha: Ok, so I’m easily distracted thinking about Michael Jackson! And no doubt that’s an understatement. But the paper rehearsed so many of the complexities of mask symbolization, starting with the surgical mask, that it really got me thinking more deeply about the ways Michael Jackson used them as a performative device.
The essay starts with a discussion of a 2011 hospital poster that asks visitors to comply with the CDC’s mask-wearing guidelines for H1N1. The poster is clearly meant to be reassuring––a gentle reminder that masks are a form of safety and protection, used to “help protect our patients, visitors, and employees.”
It also reassures visitors that the sight of a masked person doesn’t necessarily mean that individual is infected with H1N1. The whole gist of it is this: please wear a mask for protection, and if you see someone in a mask, don’t assume that person is a threat.
This creates a question in my mind. Although the mask is intended as a form of protection, is there a disconnect when it comes to its symbolic resonance? Does the mask communicate safety and protection, or does it function as a warning sign of deadly infection, illness, disability, and threat, which generates fear?
Willa: Or maybe both – a symbol of necessary protection as well as a scary reminder of the threat of this new disease, H1N1? In other words, perhaps one reason a surgical mask is such a fraught symbol is because it carries both of those contradictory meanings simultaneously – both reassuring and threatening at the same time.
Lisha: I think that’s exactly it, Willa. There are two messages and they are polar opposites: protection and threat. Why else would it be necessary to assure people that it’s ok to wear and see masks? Isn’t the poster itself an acknowledgement that masks are broadly understood as unsettling?
Willa: Those are good questions, Lisha. You’re right – it doesn’t seem like the hospital would have gone to the trouble to put up those reassuring signs about how to interpret the sight of a mask unless they realized some patients were uncomfortable about them.
Lisha: Another key takeaway for me is that not only is the mask polarizing, it is also specular, meaning how we interpret the mask, as protection or threat, is self-reflective, like a mirror. A mask invites opposing interpretations, and those interpretations become like a mirror of one’s own personal feelings and attitudes.
Willa: That’s a really important point, Lisha. As we’ve seen recently, surgical masks have come to resonate as a powerful political symbol, and in that context they seem to be amplifying pre-existing cultural divides, with a small but vocal minority opposing them on ideological grounds.
Lisha: That’s so true.
Willa: The intensity of our reactions may also reflect our particular life experiences. For example, surgeons probably see a surgical mask in rather utilitarian terms, about as meaningful as their car keys – simple familiarity has muted their emotional response. The same might be true of someone with severe allergies. I live in an area with a very high pollen count in the spring, and it’s pretty common to see people wearing surgical masks then – when they’re driving, shopping, walking the dog, mowing the grass. You see people wearing masks all around you for about six weeks each spring, and then they disappear like daffodils once allergy season is over.
That experience of seeing surgical masks so often in such everyday settings can drain them of some of their symbolic weight. However, for those who never see a surgical mask outside a medical drama on TV, I’m sure it can feel pretty alien and scary.
Lisha: That makes sense to me. Anything that’s unfamiliar or out of the ordinary could potentially cause some apprehension or anxiety.
That said, here’s a photo I’ve been thinking about! It’s from a Santa Maria courtroom, taken November 13, 2002, when Michael Jackson appeared in court to testify in a breach of contract lawsuit.
Had he just come from the hospital or had a medical procedure? Is he protecting himself from illness or an environmental threat? Is the mask hiding some kind of disfigurement, like The Elephant Man or The Phantom of the Opera, two stories he claimed to identify with? Or, is Michael Jackson simply being dramatic and mysterious and bizarre just for the heck of it?
Willa: From what I’ve been able to gather, those kinds of questions created a lot of buzz in the courtroom that day….
Lisha: It certainly did. And it’s important to give it some historical context. This photo was taken just one year after 9/11, so there were a lot of debates at the time about facial recognition as a form of security.
Willa, I think you delved into this a bit in M Poetica, about how the judge ordered the mask to be removed in the courtroom?
Willa: I talked about it briefly, but there’s a lot more there to unpack. It did create a very specific kind of courtroom drama that day, as if Michael Jackson was about to be officially “unmasked” by the judge’s order. But I wonder if he anticipated that, because removing the mask did not reveal him so much as deepen the mystery since he had bandages on underneath – a kind of double masking.
What’s most interesting to me about all this is how intensely some people wanted to unmask him, to see behind the mask. And I have to say, it really amuses me how skilled he was at thwarting that, while also playing with it – kind of like a fan dance with facial masks.
Lisha: It’s really fascinating, and I love your analysis, Willa. But I have to say it bothers me that there was so little consideration for medical issues that might have genuinely required accommodation. I’m being critical of the press here, but I am being especially critical of the judge, who should have had a more sophisticated understanding of medical privacy.
Willa: That’s true.
Lisha: But perhaps the most baffling thing for me about that courtroom scene is how Michael Jackson seemed on board with just letting all these issues of health, both physical and mental, float around in an indeterminate fashion. One day he’s wearing a mask and a bandage for the cameras, the next day he’s not and there’s no sign that there was ever a wound there to begin with, and it’s like, what mask? Was someone wearing a mask?
A former bodyguard recently claimed the surgical mask was all a big publicity stunt – not that I have much confidence in former employees who sell stories to tabloids.
Willa: Actually, I’m happy to see people defending him, regardless of venue. And this bodyguard, Matt Fiddes, who worked with Michael Jackson for 10 years, has important things to say – about his use of masks, the molestation accusations, and his life in general out of the public eye. If the more reputable news outlets won’t carry what Fiddes has to say, then he might as well turn to the tabloids. At least his words are getting recorded in print somewhere. When historians look back at Michael Jackson’s life, art, and career – and I think he will be the focus of significant reevaluation in the future – this kind of first-hand account will be important to have.
Lisha: I can’t argue with that.
Willa: So I didn’t mean to jump on a soapbox. Sorry about that! You were talking about how Michael Jackson used face masks in unexpected and confusing ways….
Lisha: Well, I’m just thinking about how we all know there are industry expectations that celebrities try to adhere to when going out in public, especially concerning appearance standards. After all, in many ways they are a commercial product that is being sold, so they have to look the part. Tabloids play the game of trying to catch them off guard, publishing photos of celebs without makeup or with a few extra pounds. But Michael Jackson’s “startext” (all the various elements that make up a celebrity’s public persona) is radically different, and doesn’t conform to anything I can think of before or since. At times, he seemed to go out of his way to get caught off guard.
Willa: Or to intentionally disrupt or complicate his “startext,” to borrow that terminology. I mean, there are celebrities who have intentionally cultivated a bad boy image – lots of rock bands have done that, like the Rolling Stones, for example – but that’s fundamentally different from what Michael Jackson was doing. Like you, I can’t think of anything quite like it by any other artist, and I find it absolutely fascinating.
But you’re right, Lisha – while I find this courtroom scene kind of amusing, we have to be careful not to treat it too lightly. The fact that this was happening only a year after September 11th adds a lot of cultural weight to the question of “unmasking” those who could be perceived as a threat.
Lisha: I remember a lot of debate about Muslim women wearing head and facial coverings for religious and cultural reasons. Should they be required to display their faces to TSA or other law enforcement officials to prove their identity? Is the government justified in asking someone to remove head and facial coverings for security purposes?
Willa: I remember that too, and it raised some complicated legal and cultural questions – especially for those who might be prejudicially seen as a threat, no matter how false or unfair that perception might be.
Navigating this issue of facial coverings can still be pretty complicated, as we’ve seen in recent discussions about the CDC guidelines to wear a facemask. For example, there has been some online debate among black men about which is more dangerous: to forego a mask and risk getting infected with the coronavirus, or wear a mask and risk getting shot by police. A Washington Post article addressed this after a Walmart security guard accosted two black men and forced them to leave the store because they were wearing protective masks.
Lisha: It’s so painful to hear this, although not entirely surprising. You’ve just pinpointed how strongly white privilege is associated with wearing a mask. Willa, earlier you mentioned that allergy sufferers in your area commonly wear masks in the spring. I’m wondering if black and brown men in your area are as comfortable with that practice as the white neighbors seem to be?
Willa: Well, that’s a good question, Lisha. I don’t have any sort of definitive answer to that, but it’s an important question to think about.
Lisha: The academic paper I referred to earlier addresses this point with a fascinating reference to Julianne Moore’s character in the movie Safe, directed by Todd Haynes. This 1995 film is generating some interest again in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
Moore plays a white suburban housewife who is afflicted with a mysterious environmental illness. The film dramatizes quite well what is already culturally understood: an upper middle-class white suburban woman never has to fear her medical mask will be interpreted as criminal intent, the way a black man does when buying groceries at Walmart during a pandemic. And she will never be treated with the same suspicion that a Muslim woman wearing the burqa is either, who might be viewed in terms of violence, terror, or even a strategy to legitimize war. In each instance, race (which is always tangled up with gender, class, religion, national origin, etc.) overrides the coding of the mask in a way that I would argue is a threat to democracy itself, like the hooded mask of the KKK.
And at the same time Moore’s character illustrates the racialized privilege to wear a mask – she is also emblematic of the stigma associated with medical issues that code as effeminizing weakness, as opposed to say a war injury, which is valorized as macho.
Willa: Wow, Lisha, you’ve just landed at an intersection where several complicated and somewhat contradictory cultural narratives collide. And as you point out, race and machismo play out in interesting ways in all this.
Lisha: Yes, and it’s especially interesting in the context of health.
Willa: That’s true. It just seems painfully ironic to me that many black men feel constrained about wearing a mask because it may be perceived as too threatening – too powerful, too criminal, too badass – while a lot of white men (and some white women as well) seem to resist wearing a mask because they feel it signals weakness. This even includes world leaders, who are getting advice from some of the world’s best medical experts and therefore should know the importance of masks in controlling the spread of airborne diseases. The title of a recent article in The Guardian sums this up pretty well: “Putin, Johnson, Bolsonaro and Trump: Men Too Macho for Masks.”
David Marcus applauds this kind of macho stance in The Federalist, in an opinion piece with its own declarative title: “The President of the United States Should Not Wear a Mask.” Marcus believes that Trump “is projecting American strength and health at a time when strong leadership is needed.” The implication is that wearing a mask would make Trump look weak.
Of course, Superman didn’t seem to have that problem! Or Batman, or Spiderman, or lots of other superheroes. But maybe all those bulging muscles were a type of overcompensation – a visual signal that they were strong despite wearing a mask….
Lisha: Good point, Willa! And is it just me, or does all this talk of leadership and strength unmask some real insecurity in terms of masculinity and power?
Willa: Well, that’s a very good question, Lisha. Actually, Amanda Taub does a great job of questioning the logic behind this kind of macho posturing, and Marcus’s argument in particular, in a New York Times article. Taub writes that “Marcus’s analysis is … consistent with the traditional idea of a strong American leader: one who projects power, acts aggressively and above all shows no fear, thereby cowing the nation’s enemies into submission.” Or as she succinctly summarizes, “In other words, a strong leader is one who conforms to the swaggering ideals of masculinity.”
However, as Taub points out, countries led by women have been more successful in addressing the pandemic than those led by men. In general, they’ve had significantly lower rates of infection and mortality. Taub’s point seems to be that “swaggering ideals of masculinity” – both by world leaders and by the people who vote for them – can actually get in the way of addressing the challenges posed by the novel coronavirus.
As interesting as this is – and I must say, I think it deserves a lot more attention – what really struck me most about all this is that a mask seems to be interpreted in radically different ways depending on who’s wearing it. If you’re a black man, it conveys a threatening kind of strength, menace, criminality. But if you’re a white man, it apparently conveys the opposite: weakness, vulnerability, even perhaps a kind of facelessness or loss of identity.
Lisha: I think what we’re seeing is how race actually overcodes the mask.
Willa: Yes, that’s it exactly, Lisha. So what does it mean when Michael Jackson wears a mask?
Lisha: Hang in there with me, Willa, because I think there is another piece of the puzzle that is essential to understanding Michael Jackson’s mask and the intersection of race and health. I just revisited Raphael Raphael’s essay “Dancing with the Elephant Man’s Bones” in Christopher Smit’s book Grasping the Spectacle. It is an amazing piece on its own, but I am finding it especially revealing when placed in conversation with the Chen essay.
Raphael argues that health and “the crisis of the body” are key to understanding Michael Jackson’s radically fluid and unstable startext, citing his frequent use of the surgical mask as well as other visual signs of disability. I’m thinking wheelchairs, crutches, arm braces, finger tape, hyperbaric chambers, his fascination with Joseph Merrick, his associations with Dave Dave, Ryan White, Bela Farkas, Make-A-Wish Foundation, hospital visits, etc.
Willa: Wow, Lisha. I feel like I’ve been pretty slow on the uptake. You’ve referred to the health/disability symbolism of medical masks several times now, and it’s just kind of blown right past me. I guess I don’t typically think of Michael Jackson’s use of masks in those terms – as signalling poor health or physical vulnerability – because I’m so focused on them as an aesthetic choice and even a type of street theater.
But when you place it in context with “other visual signs of disability,” as you catalogue so well – the finger tape, wrist braces, etc – I see what you mean. There does seem to be a significant symbolic language centered on bodily injury and disease, as well as resulting medical interventions, that Michael Jackson tapped into for decades. Wow. That’s opening up a whole new way of seeing this, Lisha. I think I’m finally starting to catch on to what you’ve been saying. Sorry to be so slow!
Lisha: You’re not slow, Willa! To be honest, this is all just unfolding for me too.
Raphael tightly weaves Michael Jackson’s multivalence and cultural/political power with race, health, and his study of P.T. Barnum. I don’t think I fully understood Barnum’s exploitation of race and health before, perhaps because so much of it is offensive and treated as better off forgotten.
Barnum clearly understood America’s fascination with race and disability and turned it into a wildly successful form of entertainment. For example, his most popular performer, Joice Heth, was an elderly black woman who was said to be the 161-year-old nursemaid of George Washington. Of course she wasn’t. But the highly charged mix of blackness and disability, along with a wildly false claim, generated huge interest and publicity. Raphael argues that Heth was so popular at the time, we can think of her as the first international celebrity performer.
Barnum also caused a full blown moral panic by claiming he had discovered a weed that caused black people to turn white––all while exhibiting black people who, like Michael Jackson, suffered from vitiligo. The claim was explosive. As Raphael writes:
For a culture in which racial binaries were sacred, this was a dangerous claim indeed. If the most reliable visual marker for distribution of power could suddenly be made fluid, the whole social order (at least symbolically) was under threat.
Eureka. Isn’t that the key to understanding the public fascination with unmasking Michael Jackson? Isn’t that what everyone wanted to know? Was Michael Jackson altering/destroying his skin and nose with some kind of race-changing, freak science plastic surgery, threatening cultural constructs of race and power – all while suspiciously claiming a disability: vitiligo?
Willa: Ha! That’s funny…
Lisha: And it’s like the surgical mask heightened the mystery and suspense around it, acting as a kind of super multiplier for all these projections of race and health. However you interpret it, this was an extraordinary spectacle.
Willa: Oh, absolutely. White America, especially, was absolutely transfixed by the way Michael Jackson challenged popular notions of race, particularly the idea that race is something biologically determined and immutable. I mean, white Americans couldn’t seem to wrap their minds around what was happening, or tear their eyes away from the ever-shifting spectacle of his face. I honestly see this illusory spectacle as perhaps his most important work of art.
But oh my gosh, Lisha – I have never thought of his use of masks as a “super multiplier,” focusing and intensifying the public gaze. Wow. Just wow. I’m going to need a moment to process this. You have given me so much to think about.
Lisha: I’m sitting here trying to process that too! And remember Chen?
Willa: Who wrote about the H1N1 masks?
Lisha: Yes. Of all the masks that Chen explores, perhaps the most threatening is the nonphysical mask we can’t actually see, like the mask of normalcy that the sociopath wears, or the mask of duplicity that Michael Jackson describes in the song “Behind the Mask”:
You sit around and I watch your face
I try to find the truth but that’s your hiding place
It is this nonphysical mask, as it relates to power, that I want to relate to Raphael’s analysis as well as your observation of “how intensely some people wanted to unmask [Michael Jackson], to see behind the mask.”
Exactly one year after the dramatic unmasking of Michael Jackson in the Santa Maria courtroom in 2002, he was arrested on criminal charges. Raphael surprisingly cites his arrest as evidence of his tremendous cultural and political power, in that the intensity of the American media spectacle it generated that day totally eclipsed another important international news story. On November 20, 2003, as many as 300,000 people gathered in London to protest President George W. Bush and the US “War on Terror” – one of the largest protests in British history.
These protesters were questioning the legitimacy of the Iraq war as well as Britain’s complicity in the US effort. As President Bush met with Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Queen, the world watched as protesters unmasked American economic and military might, destroying a statue of George W. Bush that mocked the US removal of an Iraqi statue of Sadam Hussein. But while the international press was busy covering this massive show of political resistance, the American press seemed more interested in a state effort to unmask Michael Jackson’s floating, indeterminate identity, attempting to define it and permanently fix it once and for all as a dangerous, racialized, criminal “threat.”
Willa: Whoa. Let me see if I’m following this correctly. So Raphael is suggesting that Michael Jackson himself became a mask for the Bush-Cheney administration, or the power of the state more broadly? And Michael Jackson’s arrest was a way to reaffirm state power at a time when it was threatened by the growing protests against the invasion of Iraq?
Lisha: Raphael isn’t claiming politics of distraction or any kind of media coordination to bury a politically damaging story. He is just saying that the American media spectacle of Michael Jackson’s arrest––understood as the government’s attempt to “fix” Michael Jackson’s radically unstable startext by aligning it with tropes of black criminality––totally eclipsed the news of one of the largest protests in the world, one that exposed the frailties of US power:
While American newspaper covers were saturated with the arrest of the “King of Pop,” papers throughout much of the world featured the single most spectacular image from the protests in London: the felling of a giant plaster statue of Bush.
… [S]ome wondered what the political impact for Bush and the larger “War on Terror” would be from this potentially humiliating spectacle of resistance. There were no such discussions in the dominant American press, where the protests received little attention…. Consequently, in the United States, the event is not widely remembered by American citizens, certainly not as well as Jackson’s arrest the same day.
That’s true for me because I honestly don’t remember the London protest at all, though I do have a memory of Michael Jackson in handcuffs performing the staged perp walk, and I wasn’t a fan at the time. Using Chen’s logic, one might argue that Michael Jackson’s arrest actually masked the insecurities of the Bush administration, with Tom Sneddon’s narrative to “protect” the public from a dangerous “threat.”
All protest is ultimately a media strategy that attempts to focus attention on an issue or cause. However, on that particular day, even 300,000 protesters in London, along with the Prime Minister, the Queen, and the US president, couldn’t compete with the American media spectacle of Michael Jackson’s arrest.
Willa: When you look at it that way, I can see Raphael’s point. I mean, it’s pretty amazing that media coverage of Michael Jackson’s arrest was able to knock one of the largest protests in the world off the front page. Raphael is right – that is a testament of Michael Jackson’s cultural power … though it may also be true that American media were not that enthusiastic about covering the protests.
I have to say, though, that initially it felt like a bit of a stretch to draw a connection between Iraq war protests in London and Michael Jackson’s arrest in California. But as I think about it, it’s true that in moments of crisis, whether from real or perceived threats, there has typically been a kind of national contraction in the US – a curtailing of civil liberties, an increase in bigotry and xenophobia, a growing intolerance to difference of all kinds, including the targeting of popular artists. Several examples spring to mind. There’s the execution of the Rosenbergs during the Cold War, and Charlie Chaplin’s paternity trial and banishment from the US at about the same time. Or the Kent State shootings during the Vietnam War, and John Lennon’s banishment not long after that.
And Michael Jackson was a much bigger threat to the established social order – to white male supremacy in particular – than Chaplin or Lennon were. So the more I think about it, the more it makes sense to me. I can see how there would be an urge to “fix” or contain or neutralize the threat Michael Jackson represented, especially at that time of perceived national crisis following September 11th and the invasion of Iraq. And I mean that in the Foucaultian sense of diffuse mechanisms of power, not in a premeditated conspiracy type way.
Lisha: I think that’s exactly it.
Willa: Lisha, your take on Raphael’s article was so intriguing to me that I went back and reread it, and based on some of the things you’ve been pointing out, I was also struck by this passage:
In these widely circulated images [of his arrest], Jackson as (at least potentially) symbolic revolutionary symbol was “fixed” as pathological at precisely the same moment resistance itself was pathologized. So it was in such a moment that this constantly changing body, perhaps the ur-text of otherness, was politically contained.
So in the mainstream press anyway, Michael Jackson as a “revolutionary symbol” was finally unmasked, and what was revealed behind the mask as something pathological – a pedophile – thereby neutralizing or “containing” him as a cultural threat. And Raphael suggests this same process happened to the war protests also. As he writes, “resistance itself was pathologized.” But the pathology that was revealed by this symbolic unmasking was false.
Lisha: Yes! It’s like who unmasked who? Where is the true site of this pathology?
In 2005, the 14 not guilty verdicts unmasked Tom Sneddon and the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s office, in “an absolute and complete victory for Michael Jackson, utter humiliation and defeat for Thomas Sneddon” to quote CNN. It’s also worth noting that during that trial, yet another judge decided Michael Jackson’s medical issues were all just a big show, and ordered him to leave a hospital emergency room to appear in court. So he did. In the pajamas he was wearing when he was rushed to the ER.
After the trial, Michael Jackson leaves the US and moves to Bahrain, on the advice of counsel that it was not safe to remain in his own home because of the threat posed by law enforcement.
And whoops, he is at it again:
Willa: I have to say, I love this image, and also this quote from the manager of a theater he frequented in Bahrain, taken from an old GQ article:
“The first time he come here, he’s not dressed like woman,” he says. “He come in like regular person.… But people recognize, ask to make a few pictures. So then he come with abaya like woman! But he don’t know how to put on. Grace [Jackson’s nanny] she come in here and ask me how do you put on this. I tell her, ‘Michael have man body, this for woman body.’ I fix Michael’s dress!”
I love the fact that in these brief glimpses, Michael Jackson still seems playful and creative – unbroken and unbowed. He’s still boldly stirring the pot, which is especially remarkable since it’s during the thick of the Iraq War.
Lisha: And when finally returning to the United States in preparation for “This Is It” (which Rita Alves connects to Barnum’s wildly popular attraction “What Is It?”), I see no signs of Michael Jackson slowing down with the mask symbolization, and absolutely zero fear or insecurity about wearing them. In fact, he’s kind of leaning into it:
Dan Reed’s wildly popular Barnum-esque spectacle of race and (mental) health, Leaving Neverland, provided another breath-taking display of Michael Jackson’s cultural and political power in 2019, in that the intensity and the fascination continues a full ten years after his death. I do sense another unmasking coming soon, but I doubt it’s going to be Michael Jackson.
Lisha: Hey, Willa. Has it really been almost a year since our last blog post?
Willa: It has! Hard to believe, isn’t it? It’s so nice to talk with you again!
Lisha: Oh, it’s such a joy to chat with you again, Willa.
Willa: I’ve really missed it. You know, whenever we dive deep into Michael Jackson’s work and just immerse ourselves in it and discover how profound and revolutionary it is, that feels so nourishing to me. There’s nothing else quite like it. And I strongly believe we need Michael Jackson now more than ever! But at the same time, I think we really needed to take some time off, take a step back, and kind of regroup and reevaluate.
Lisha: Well, I know I did. To be honest, being an American citizen feels like a full-time job right now, with all the non-stop political chaos. It’s difficult to process it all.
Willa: I agree. Just listening to the news on the radio is exhausting. But for me, something else has been going on too. This election and some of the terrible things that have happened since have really forced me to go back and question some of my assumptions.
For example, looking back I realize that one of the founding beliefs of this blog was that racism and other types of prejudice have diminished significantly in recent decades, and that Michael Jackson played an important role in bringing about those changes. I still believe that’s true in some respects. For example, younger people seem to be much more accepting of interracial relationships than previous generations. They’re also less homophobic, and less threatened by difference in general. But at the same time, I see deep systemic injustices that are not being addressed, and in fact seem to be getting worse.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that, when Obama won the election, I felt so hopeful that we were at last becoming that “more just society” Martin Luther King envisioned so long ago. And I really believed Michael Jackson helped bring us there. But now those hopes seem premature. It was so easy to make rosy declarations about social change when Obama was president! It’s much harder to do that now.
Lisha: I agree. I keep thinking about how the first woman president would have wrapped such a nice, neat, little bow around the Obama years and all my optimistic ideas about how the culture is moving forward, even if it isn’t as far or fast as I would like. Now I find myself questioning that whole premise, wondering, is the culture really moving forward at all? It’s heartbreaking. Especially today, on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination.
Here’s a sobering article I read recently about the 1968 Kerner Commission on civil rights in the U.S. A 2018 reexamination of their original report shows that any gains we’ve made since 1968 have either stalled or been completely reversed.
Willa: Wow, that’s a really painful article. But I have to say, it corresponds with what we’ve been hearing in the news. It’s heartbreaking, as you say.
Racism in particular has been woven into the fabric of America since before we became a country, though with important advances and regressions, and this feels like a time of regression. But maybe that’s not true – maybe it’s not so much a step back as simply making visible what was hidden before. There have been a number of news articles suggesting that one effect of this election has been to embolden people to declare prejudices they felt the need to keep hidden before. That would suggest that racism hadn’t receded in recent decades, but just gone underground. If that’s true, then maybe what we’re going through now is a painful but necessary phase to finally root out and address that latent racism. Maybe.
But it’s also true that if you look back at American history, every step forward – whether it’s racial equality or women’s suffrage or workers’ rights or environmental awareness and protections or any major advance – has been followed by a backlash similar to what we’re seeing now. And this does feel like a backlash to me: a violent reaction to fundamental changes that really have taken place, politically and culturally.
I keep telling myself that – that I need to take the long view and not get caught up in the day-to-day drama of the current White House – but it’s so disturbing to see what’s happened in the past year, and how much ground has been lost on so many fronts. I wonder if that’s one reason Michael Jackson never gave much credence to politics, and instead tried to bring about change through his art instead.
Lisha: I’ve thought about that a lot recently, especially in relation to the early years, before the Motown signing, when the Jackson 5 were freelancing in the Gary/Chicagoland area. This was one of the most politically charged eras in American history, and it reached a boiling point in Chicago in 1968, about the time the Jackson 5 started really picking up some steam with their regional hit, “Big Boy,” on the Steeltown label.
Willa: That’s true! I never put that together before, Lisha – that the Jackson 5 would have been traveling around Chicago that summer when everything blew up.
Lisha: Yes! For those who aren’t familiar with that area, Gary, Indiana, is very much a part of the Chicago metro area, even though it is across the state line. And by 1968, the Jackson 5 were appearing in some of Chicago’s most successful black venues, like the Regal Theater, the Capitol Theater, the Central Park Theater, and the High Chaparral Lounge.
But Chicago was also a pretty tumultuous place to be in 1968. For example, there are reports that the Jackson 5 performed at a South Side night club, the Guys & Gals, on April 6, 1968, as the city erupted in violence in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. The rioting was so intense that the National Guard was brought in to respond to all the fires, shootings, and looting that occurred that weekend.
Willa: Wow. I wonder how aware Michael Jackson would have been about that? He turned 10 that summer, and he doesn’t seem to have been shielded much from harsh realities as a child. I’m sure he would have known about the assassination of Dr. King and some of the unrest that followed all around the nation. I wonder if he realized what was happening right there on the streets of Chicago?
Lisha: I don’t see how he could have avoided it. Especially since he was working in Chicago, where the response to Dr. King’s death was so intense.
Fortunately, I think the Jacksons probably escaped the worst of the violence that occurred later that summer – the apocalyptic “Battle of Michigan Avenue” leading up to the 1968 Democratic National Convention – because there’s a gap in their performance schedule at that time.
My guess is that’s when they made their annual trip to Arizona. There was a really good article about this recently in Phoenix Magazine, describing the Jackson family vacations in Arizona. If they did manage to escape Chicago in August of 1968, it would have been great timing, given all the chaos back at home.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Lisha. From that article, it sounds like they definitely went to Arizona in 1966 and 67, and several times after that as well. And you think they may have gone in 1968? It’s certainly possible, though 1968 turned out to be a pivotal year for them. They might have been too busy to go!
Lisha: You are absolutely right! I’m just guessing because we know that the previous two years they made the trip to Winslow, Arizona, around the same time. 1968 is the year that their grandparents moved from Winslow to Phoenix, so that would account for why people in Winslow didn’t see them that summer.
Willa: Oh, that’s a good point. I didn’t think about that….
Lisha: Anyway, as you say, it’s quite possible they went elsewhere – or maybe they were just at home in Gary, enjoying some time off before school started back up.
A lot of my interest in this early period stems from some outstanding journalism the Chicago Reader’s Jake Austen did back in 2009, digging into the Jackson 5’s early history. It’s a riveting story. Contrary to the myth that the Jackson 5 were plucked from obscurity by Motown records in 1969, Austen shows how the Jackson 5 were actually climbing their way to the top of a very vibrant black music scene in Chicago, appearing on local television, radio, and in some of the city’s most popular live venues.
Willa: Yes, it’s so interesting to read about what they were doing in those early years! I had no idea about any of this, Lisha – about how often they were performing in Chicago and how involved they were in the Chicago scene – until you shared some of your research with me a couple of years ago.
I think some critics think Michael Jackson was exaggerating when he talked about how hard he worked as a child, but the evidence Jake Austen has uncovered supports him. As is often the case with a so-called “overnight success,” it took a lot of hard work and determination to bring about that success.
Lisha: That’s so true. In fact, there was so much going on in those early years, even Michael Jackson gets some details wrong in his book, Moonwalk. Perfectly understandable given his young age!
Willa: Really? I didn’t know that. What are some of the things he gets wrong?
Lisha: Well, Austen shows how Michael Jackson seems to conflate events, like the marathon recording session he did for Steeltown Records at Sunny Sawyer’s studio in Chicago, with post production work he observed in Gary, Indiana, “on Saturday mornings after watching Roadrunner cartoons.” More significantly, Michael Jackson seems to have completely forgotten about the work he did in 1967 at One-derful records on Chicago’s Record Row. That’s a huge story, for many reasons.
Chicago birthed a number of important developments in popular music: Chicago Blues, Chicago Soul, and many key moments in early rock-n-roll. By the late 1950s, legendary artists like Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry were recording on a 12-block stretch of S. Michigan Avenue known as Record Row, a beehive of small independent record labels that specialized in R&B. These record companies sprang up mostly in response to the major record labels either undervaluing or neglecting this music altogether.
Many of the amazing artists on Record Row would provide inspiration for generations of musicians to come. For example, the Rolling Stones recognized the importance of the Chicago R&B scene early on and went to Record Row to study with their idols at Chess Records.
Willa: Yes, they did, and they treated it like a pilgrimage … almost like they were visiting a holy place where American music sprang forth.
Lisha: So true! They even recorded a song titled “2120 S. Michigan Ave” in homage to the studio.
Willa: And to give the Rolling Stones their due, blues musicians didn’t receive much recognition in America until the British invasion groups acknowledged them as the incredible artists they are, and pointed to them as the forefathers of much of their own music. It’s the old story of prophets not being accepted in their own hometowns, I guess. It took the outspoken admiration of British groups like the Rolling Stones before white American audiences started to wake up and appreciate some of the early blues artists who had been ignored and overlooked before.
Lisha: That’s right. British musicians quickly recognized the significance of Chicago R&B and rock-n-roll, when American records started making their way to port cities like Liverpool, England, via American military ships. Both the Rolling Stones and the Beatles cite Chess Record’s Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry as strong influences.
The Beatles also claim Elvis Presley as an early inspiration, but we know Presley got his start by simply covering Arthur Crudup, an earlier Chicago R&B artist whose “That’s All Right” was recorded in Chicago at RCA Victor in 1946. Some have argued that Crudup’s “That’s All Right” is the earliest example of rock-n-roll, although Presley often gets the credit for being an early rock-n-roll pioneer.
Other early rock-n-roll artists like Little Richard and Jackie Wilson recorded on Record Row at Brunswick Records, located at 1449 S. Michigan, in the same building that housed Vee-Jay Records, the company that gave the Beatles their first U.S. distribution deal.
And then we find out Michael Jackson was in development just down the street at 1827 S. Michigan, home of One-derful Records, where the Jackson 5 recorded a forgotten early version of “Big Boy.” That’s a lot of music history happening on a single city street, and we haven’t even scratched the surface!
Willa: It really is! In the 1950s and 60s, Chicago’s Record Row was pretty much the center of the recording industry universe for “black music,” and therefore white music as well since many of the biggest hits of the time were “white” covers of “black” songs released from Record Row.
Lisha: That’s a crucially important point. As the major record companies underestimated the appeal this music would have outside the black community, independent labels started generating big hits that crossed over into white markets, so the majors quickly put out cover records to cash in on the trend.
Because the U.S. was (and is) so deeply divided along color lines, racial divisions are clearly visible in the industrial production and consumption of music. A nation segregated by race will produce music that is segregated by race as well. In studying this music, it’s striking how rigidly segregated every aspect of the business is. There are black/white live venues, recording studios, record shops, radio stations, …
Willa: Yes, but radio waves go everywhere, not just to black houses or white houses.
Lisha: That was the key! As people heard how compelling this music was over the airwaves, it created huge demand for the records and that included white teenagers, who had disposable income to spend on recorded music.
Willa: Yes, and that’s another important point, Lisha. This was the beginning of the rise of youth culture in the U.S., with teenagers having access to cars (and car radios) as well as money to spend, and it caused a very real fear in some quarters – especially since a lot of these white kids really seemed to like the music coming from Record Row. So some people, especially in the South, put a lot of energy into deliberate attempts to keep the music segregated – in part because, as Michael Jackson said many times, music is such a powerful force for bringing people together.
Lisha: I think that because music both reflects and potentially drives the culture, you can see that when musical divisions are destabilized, it threatens social divisions as well.
Lisha: Many white parents were anxious about their children consuming music previously marketed as “race records.” So the knock-offs addressed that anxiety and proved to be wildly successful at market. But that meant the true innovators of this music were never properly recognized or fairly compensated for their work. Cover records outsold the originals many times over, and intellectual property rights were commonly signed over to the record companies in those days.
Willa: That’s true, and that’s something else Michael Jackson talked about a number of times – for example, in his protests against Sony.
So here’s a really good documentary that talks about Chicago’s Record Row and the crucial role it played in this formative period in American music. About 20 minutes in, it talks about efforts in the 1950s to keep keep white teenagers from listening to these new black artists by having white artists cover their music, sometimes practically note for note.
But the main focus of this documentary is what a happening place Record Row was back then! Here’s the film:
I love this documentary! And for me the big takeaway is simply all the energy and excitement and creativity on Record Row at that time! This really was the center of the music industry, like Hollywood for the film industry, and it’s incredible to think that a very young Michael Jackson was right there too, taking it all in.
Lisha: It is such a fascinating story, isn’t it? For anyone having trouble with the link, we’re discussing a PBS documentary titled Cradle of Rhythm and Blues: Record Row, narrated by Etta James. (Michael Jackson opened for her at the Apollo Theater in 1968.)
Willa: Yes, but if you want to find a physical copy you’re going to have a hard time of it, as one YouTube blogger explained:
Record Row – Was produced by WTTW in Chicago (PBS) and aired in February 1997. I happened to tape it. Lost my tape a few months ago and then discovered that Record Row had disappeared from the earth more or less. Found one copy in a small college’s library somewhere in the south but not available for loan. Called WTTW and they disavowed ever having produced Record Row! Obviously no VHS or DVD’s for sale! But this is an important historical document.
I bring that up to emphasize how difficult it is to find information about Record Row, and how precious it is when something does turn up. It really feels like an important part of American music history is being lost.
Lisha: Musically speaking, it seems like Chicago has been hiding its light under a bushel for decades.
Willa: Yes, but those with roots in Chicago know the history. Here’s a short but fun clip of President Obama singing “Sweet Home Chicago” in the White House with some of the artists who recorded in Chicago at one time or another, including B.B. King (who frequently performed in Chicago and recorded a number of live albums there), Buddy Guy (who was a house musician at Chess Records early in his career), and Mick Jagger (who recorded an album at Chess, as you mentioned earlier, Lisha, and whose picture is on the wall at Chess):
Lisha: Whoa! That is the coolest clip ever, Willa!
Willa: Oh, it just does my heart good to watch this! And it’s fascinating if you think about the chronology of voices in this clip. It begins with Buddy Guy singing a song reportedly by Robert Johnson, though no one knows for sure. He recorded the first known version of it, but it’s never been clearly documented whether he wrote it or not. It’s then picked up by a wonderful singer I don’t know – do you, Lisha?
Lisha: No idea, but she is incredible! Let me see if I can find out …
So looking at the credits of In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues, which was taped in the East Room of the White House, I see that the spectacular female vocalist we are so curious about is Shemekia Copeland, and she is the daughter of Texas Blues guitarist Johnny Copeland. I’m an instant fan!
Willa: Thank you for tracking that down, Lisha. I love her voice! It’s nice to put a name with it.
So after Shemekia Copeland, Mick Jagger sings a verse, and then Buddy Guy insists Obama take a turn. (“I heard you singing Al Green!”) And Obama does sing! He also holds the microphone out for B.B. King to sing a phrase before coming back in. It ends with many different voices joining together.
I have to say, I just love this clip! And in some way I can’t explain very well, it encapsulates everything I think about the role of music in bringing about social change.
Lisha: I love it too! There is something about this music that makes me so proud to be American – just obnoxiously so. It’s as if racial divisions fall away in musical moments like this, and we all just become Americans. It’s amazing to me how national identity and music are so closely bound together, and this music so perfectly captures what I think of as American music. Pretty interesting when you consider how this music was devalued and marginalized historically, yet it ends up defining a nation. Maybe that’s why it’s such a thrill to see it celebrated at the White House in such a meaningful way?
Willa: That makes a lot of sense, Lisha. I feel a sense of pride and belonging also, though I wasn’t able to explain it as well as you just did. There’s just something so uplifting about hearing all these talented musicians come together and celebrate this distinctly American style of music!
But there’s also something very special about the way the song is picked up and carried by one voice after another in this clip – from Buddy Guy to a chorus of voices at the end, with nods along the way to Robert Johnson and B.B. King and even the Rolling Stones – that almost seems to trace the history of American music, and especially Chicago Blues, in compressed form. Looking at it in a more symbolic way, it’s pretty profound what’s happening on that stage.
Lisha: Wow. Now that you mention it, I can see this performance as being like a map of the human history of this country, representing centuries of struggle in a musical way. I mean, you have the stringed instruments and Western harmony that were imposed on this land by European conquerors, the enslaved peoples who took it and made it their own – only to send it back to Europe where it is admired and copied and returned to us via the British musical invasion.
Willa: Represented by the hand of Mick Jagger taking the microphone for a verse and then passing it on to Obama.
Lisha: Oh gosh, you’re right!
Willa: It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? And then, the sheer fact that Obama joins in and plays a role in carrying the song forward, and that this is all happening at the White House at the invitation of the first black president, really drives home the connection between art and politics, and the role of music – particularly the music of Chicago and Record Row – in changing public opinions about race. This clip is just amazing to me, on so many levels.
Lisha: I agree with you. I think I’ve already hit replay about 10 times! It’s like a musical snapshot of the whole story.
I think what we’re learning here is that making music in and of itself can be a very powerful political act. Also, I’m starting to think Chicago is a much bigger part of the Michael Jackson story than we previously imagined, both musically and politically.
Willa: I agree. Thank you so much for sharing your musical knowledge with me, Lisha! As a Chicago musician yourself, you’ve really opened my eyes to the fact that Chicago – in particular, Record Row – was where it was happening, musically, in the 1950s and 60s. And Michael Jackson was right there, talented and prepped and ready to step up to the microphone …
Lisha: … at a pivotal moment in history. 1968 marks the end of the Civil Rights Movement proper with the assassination of Dr. King and the final legislative achievement of the movement, the Fair Housing Act. When Michael Jackson steps onto the world stage the following year, in 1969, it is the beginning of the post-civil rights era. And he remains highly visible for the remainder of his life – until 2009, when President Obama is sworn into office.
Willa: That’s true. And it seems really significant that Michael Jackson’s career is bookended in that way – by Martin Luther King on one end and President Obama on the other. We need to look at that further – that seems like a really important conversation to have. But it’s also important to look at Gary, and the surprising role it played in the Chicago music scene…. There’s a lot to talk about!
Lisha: Hey Willa! It’s been a long time since we’ve talked.
Willa: Yes, it has, and an awful lot has happened since then.
Lisha: So true. Here in the US, it feels like a luxury to think about anything other than the news of the day – we have so much political turmoil going on. But I recently saw something that really spoke to me and I wanted to see if it resonated for you, too.
It’s a quote by the conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein, published in the Boston Globe on July 5, 1970. It was taken from remarks he made at the Tanglewood Music Festival, addressing the “artist’s role in a chaotic world”:
It is the artists of this world, the feelers and thinkers, who will ultimately save us, who can articulate, educate, defy, insist, sing, and shout the big dreams. Only the artists can turn the “not-yet” into reality.
Willa: Thank you for sharing this, Lisha! I love everything about this quote – especially that bold opening line of “It is the artists of the world … who will ultimately save us.”
When I read about all the injustice and violence around the world, and about increasing intolerance here in the US, and when I think about how rapidly climate change is happening, and about the recent political changes that indicate we’ll not only respond too slowly in coming years but may actually start moving back in the wrong direction, I do wonder if we’ll be able to save ourselves and the other inhabitants of this planet.
Lisha: It’s a dangerous time, for sure.
Willa: It feels that way, doesn’t it? – like we’re on the edge of a precipice. But if there’s a chance, it lies with artists.
Lisha: Yes! Artists play such an important role in showing us where we are and where we need to go. They are the leading edge of what we’re capable of imagining and creating and becoming.
Willa: Exactly! Very well stated, Lisha. As Bernstein said, “Only the artists can turn the ‘not-yet’ into reality.” I really believe that. Before you can “make that change,” to quote another visionary artist, you first have to be able to visualize that change. And then you have to make people care enough to bring it about.
Those two acts – of imagining a new way of being and of making people care enough to enact that vision – may be the two most important and most difficult steps in bringing about social change. And those talents lie uniquely with artists: the ability to visualize the “not-yet” and to make people care.
Lisha: That’s it, really. And I think we can point to very concrete examples of this in both Leonard Bernstein and Michael Jackson’s work.
Leonard Bernstein was one of the first to take a very broad view of American music, wanting to understand what makes some music sound “American,” in such a way that all Americans could identify with it. As a result, he was among the first to challenge the high/low art divide in American music and to explore the racial politics buried within it. It’s a position he never backed away from throughout his entire career.
Willa: That’s interesting, Lisha. We’ve talked several times about how Michael Jackson blurred the boundary between high art and popular art, along with other artists like Andy Warhol, Fred Astaire, Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau, even Walt Disney to some extent. And you’re right – Bernstein worked to bridge that divide also.
Lisha: Yes. Bernstein seemed just as comfortable in the symphonic world as he was in musical theatre and film, even nightclubs for that matter! As a composer and conductor, he interrogated the boundary between “serious” and “popular” music, and he refused to segregate musical styles, using music as a form of civic engagement. He was also a very dynamic performer. So it’s no surprise to me that he was a huge fan of Michael Jackson.
Author Jonathan Cott, who got the last substantive interview with Bernstein over a dinner in his home, described Bernstein’s admiration for Michael Jackson this way:
Above all, in every aspect of his life and work, Bernstein was a boundless enthusiast. In the course of my dinner conversation with him, he informed me that the word “enthusiasm” was derived from the Greek adjective ‘entheos’, meaning “having the god within,” with its attendant sense of ‘living without aging,’ as did the gods on Mount Olympus.
One of my favorite Bernstein stories that perfectly exemplifies and highlights his enthusiastic disposition tells of the occasion when the conductor invited the then twenty-eight-year-old Michael Jackson – another age defying musical “god” whom Bernstein wildly admired – to attend a concert he was leading with the New York Philharmonic in 1996 at Los Angeles’s Royce Hall. Jackson was bowled over by Bernstein’s hyperkinetic performance, and during the intermission he went backstage to pay tribute to his fellow musical potentate. The hyper-appreciative Bernstein then wrapped both his arms around Jackson, lifted him up and kissed him on the lips. Landing back on the terra firma, the breathless singer found himself only able to ask the conductor, “Do you always use the same baton?”
Here’s a photo that I believe is from their backstage meeting in Royce Hall, August 1986:
Willa: That’s a wonderful story, Lisha! I love the image of Bernstein scooping Michael Jackson up in a big embrace. I’m always struck by how other talented and creative people seemed to recognize him as a kindred spirit, like Baryshnikov talking about his dancing.
It’s funny to think of Michael Jackson being star-struck, but I’ve read about other instances where he felt overwhelmed meeting someone he admired, so I guess it really did happen sometimes.
Lisha: Yes, it does seem funny, since Michael Jackson was obviously a much bigger star. And it’s hilarious that he responded to Bernstein’s enthusiastic greeting by asking about the baton!
Willa: It really is, and it reminds me of something David Michael Frank told Joe Vogel. Frank was working with Michael Jackson on a classical album in the spring of 2009 – this was on top of everything else Michael Jackson had going on in the months before he died, with rehearsals starting for This Is It also.
Frank talked to Joe Vogel about it later, and he mentioned Bernstein’s batons:
I hope one day his family will decide to record this music as a tribute, and show the world the depth of his artistry. … I told Michael I was going to use one of Leonard Bernstein’s batons I had bought at an auction when we did the recording. I knew he would have gotten a big kick out of that.
Lisha: Wow! How cool is that?
Willa: Wouldn’t that be wonderful if it came to pass? I’d love to see a video of Frank using one of Bernstein’s batons to conduct an orchestra playing Michael Jackson’s classical music.
Lisha: Or even better, maybe someday we will hear it live!
Willa: That would be an experience! According to a post by David Pack, who arranged a meeting between Bernstein and Michael Jackson, the admiration went both directions. Pack wrote that Bernstein was in Los Angeles in 1986 a few days before his birthday, and Pack asked him what he would like to do to celebrate: “Without missing a beat, Leonard said, ‘I want to meet Michael Jackson.’” Unfortunately, I think the original post has been taken down, but here’s a repost on Reflections on the Dance that tells the story of that evening.
Lisha: That is such a captivating story. I would love to know what Leonard Bernstein and Michael Jackson discussed that evening!
Willa: I would too!
Lisha: I’m guessing this dinner party happened on the same evening Michael Jackson attended the New York Philharmonic concert in Los Angeles because I noticed Michael Jackson is wearing the same clothing in all the photos. Bernstein is wearing a tux in the above photo, but more casual clothing at the dinner. Conductors typically change after a concert and don’t wear their tuxes out of the concert hall, so I think there’s a good chance this dinner happened right after the concert.
Willa: Oh, I bet you’re right, Lisha. Good detective work! It makes sense that Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones would have dinner with Bernstein after meeting him backstage.
Lisha: Yes, and it sounds like Bernstein hoped this meeting might lead to them working together. According to Pack, “Leonard wanted to introduce Michael to classical music and maybe inspire Michael toward a collaboration of classical and pop music.” I wonder if they realized no introduction was necessary when it came to Michael Jackson and classical music? As Jermaine Jackson tells in his book, You Are Not Alone:
Michael viewed music as a “science” as well as a feeling. From the moment we moved into Bowmont Drive , he started to study composition. He strove to understand the make-up of someone’s song in the same way a scientist set out to understand a person’s DNA. Together we tuned into any classical station we could find on the radio, listening to the structure of a piece of music and “seeing” what color, mood and emotion each instrument would create … he loved so many classical pieces, how they started slowly with the strings, swelled into something dramatic or racing, then calmed again. This structure – the A-B-A form – was something we constantly dissected. And this classical inspiration runs as a thread through so much of his music… (p. 129)
In fact, according to Michael Jackson’s own words, the Thriller album (released four years prior to his meeting with Bernstein) is based on Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. Talk about counter-intuitive!
Willa: Yes, Susan Fast talked about that in a post a few years ago. I was really surprised by that, but after Susan explained it it made a lot of sense.
Lisha: Yes, she always has a way of making complicated ideas seem crystal clear!
And there is another interesting influence. I think most everyone who has spent some time with the short film Beat It can see a lot of Bernstein’s West Side Story in Michael Jackson’s work.
Willa: Yes, director Bob Giraldi has denied there’s any connection, but I’ve found that Michael Jackson’s directors often seem to have a pretty superficial understanding of his films. And it seems doubtful to me that West Side Story wasn’t an inspiration for Beat It, whether Giraldi realizes it or not – there are just too many connections.
Lisha: I agree. I don’t doubt Giraldi’s account of what happened, but I don’t think it necessarily rules out West Side Story as an influence either.
Willa: Yes, that’s a good way to put it, Lisha. I think you’re right.
Lisha: Michael Jackson knew the history of popular music, theatre, and film well. Really well. Many consider West Side Story to be the pinnacle of the genre, so I find it hard to believe it escaped his attention. There are just too many connections between Beat It and West Side Story to simply dismiss them as coincidence.
Willa: I agree. For example, the first words you hear in West Side Story, repeated at intervals as the gangs collide, is “Beat it!” Also, the way the gangs walk in unison in West Side Story, clicking their fingers as they walk – we see clear echoes of that repeatedly in Beat It. And actually, the whole idea of a musical about overcoming gang violence – that lies at the heart of both works. So it seems pretty likely to me that West Side Story was in Michael Jackson’s mind to some extent as he was creating Beat It.
Lisha: Those are brilliant observations, Willa! And by the way, anyone who hasn’t read your analysis of Beat It in M Poetica is truly missing out. You so convincingly show how artists interact with previous works by connecting the dots between Beat It, West Side Story and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Michael Jackson updates previous incarnations of the story by envisioning a world where strong group identification isn’t based on ethnic or family ties, as it is in the works that preceded him.
The Eddie Van Halen guitar solo plopped into the middle of the song illustrates this point musically, as it strongly codes white in a tune that would otherwise be pigeonholed as black music. And at the very end of Beat It, the camera pulls away to break the fourth wall between the viewer and the performance. Assuming everyone is paying attention, it becomes explicit that this is a vision of the world as it could be, rather than a naïve remark about how the world really is.
Willa: That’s a really important observation, Lisha – one that critics who call Beat It naïve have clearly missed.
Lisha: Envisioning a more peaceful, colorblind society through music on stage and screen also strikes me as a Bernsteinian move. It strongly echoes Bernstein’s first Broadway show, On the Town, written in 1944 at the height of World War II, in collaboration with three other Jewish artists: Jerome Robbins (whose choreography shows up in Michael Jackson’s work), Betty Comden and Adolph Green (the screenwriters for two very important Michael Jackson influences: The Band Wagon and Singin’ In The Rain).
Willa: Interesting! There are more connections between Bernstein and Michael Jackson, creatively, than I realized.
Lisha: Yes, and I find it very intriguing. Especially when you consider how revolutionary the show On the Town was in its day. It was the first Broadway musical written by a symphonic composer, and it was the first show to cast actors in an integrated, colorblind way. African American actors played a variety of roles right alongside their white counterparts, appearing as typical New Yorkers, sailors, and pedestrians – something that hadn’t really happened before. There was an interracial chorus performing hand-holding dances. Everett Lee conducted the orchestra, making him the first African American musical director on Broadway.
But perhaps the most revolutionary casting decision was for the lead female role, which featured the Japanese-American dancer, Sono Osato, as the ultimate “all-American” beauty, Ivy Smith. That was a truly radical move at that time, considering Osato’s father was one of the 120,000 Japanese-Americans interned during the war.
Here’s a picture of Sono Osato and John Battles in On the Town, from Carol J. Oja’s Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War:
And here’s a picture of the original Broadway cast of On the Town in 1944:
Willa: Wow, thanks for the insights about On the Town, Lisha! It really sounds like a Michael Jackson kind of production, doesn’t it? I mean, think of how he transformed the all-white nightclub in The Band Wagon into the multi-ethnic clientele of Smooth Criminal or You Rock My World.
Lisha: Yes, it does resemble the creative philosophy of Michael Jackson. And I’m so glad you mentioned You Rock My World, Willa, because that’s another strong Leonard Bernstein connection. Bernstein wrote the music for the film On the Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando, which is alluded to throughout You Rock My World, including a cameo appearance by Brando himself.
Willa: That’s right! I hadn’t put all that together, Lisha, but that’s another important connection … and a really interesting one. Thanks for connecting the dots.
And I’m still intrigued by your description of On the Town. It sounds like it was an early forerunner of the kind of boundary-crossing sensibility we see throughout Michael Jackson’s work – and at a time when interracial relationships were far less accepted. In fact, there were anti-miscegenation laws in many states in 1944.
Lisha: Yes and don’t forget this was happening during World War II, when America was fighting for human rights and freedom abroad, despite obvious shortcomings here at home.
Willa: That’s right, and when fear of “foreigners” was at a peak, especially against Japanese-Americans. I was really struck by what you said earlier, Lisha, that the father of the lead actress was one of the thousands taken from their homes and forced to live in camps during the war.
Lisha: I had to take a moment to really let that sink in, especially in relation to our current moment. In 1944, as Japanese-Americans were being carted off and placed in internment camps, a group of young Jewish artists responded by constructing a new beauty icon: Japanese-American Sono Osato as the fresh-faced, all-American girl next door.
Willa: Yes, it’s a creative way of speaking truth to power.
Lisha: For sure. From a 2017 perspective, when you look at those photos of the original On the Town cast, you wouldn’t have a clue anything radical was going on unless someone told you the history of the show. There’s absolutely nothing there that seems out of the ordinary to our 21st century eyes. But in 1944, it wasn’t what audiences expected to see at all.
One indication of how truly radical the show was is that when MGM released a film version five years later, the racial politics were removed, in very disturbing ways, I might add. And most of Bernstein’s music was removed as well – all but three songs and the ballet. The producers thought it was too symphonic, so they assumed audiences wouldn’t like or understand it.
Willa: Really? Even though Bernstein was seen as one of the greatest composer/conductors of the 20th century? I have to say, stories like this make me crazy – it reminds me of what happened to the panther dance segment of Black or White. You would think that when an artist of Bernstein’s stature, or Michael Jackson’s, released a revolutionary new work, there would be a certain level of trust in their judgment, and a hesitation in condemning it too quickly. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Lisha: Yes, it’s really hard to take. I recommend watching the MGM version of On the Town sometime, just to see for yourself how awful the new music is and how horrible the racialized nightclub scenes really are! And why? It cost them a lot of money to substitute poor quality for the original!
Willa: Wow, Lisha, it’s pretty ironic when you look at it that way …
Lisha: But perhaps that’s what happens when artists get too many steps ahead of the culture: not everyone gets it. Michael Jackson seemed to be aware of this. I suspect that’s the reason he backed down and issued an apology for the panther dance. If you push too far too fast, the message doesn’t get across.
That’s one of the most interesting things about Bernstein and the original production of On the Town. It doesn’t necessarily hit you over the head with overt political statements – the show simply imagines the world as it could be, which has always been the purview of the arts. As musicologist Carol Oja writes in her essay “Bernstein’s Musicals: Reflections of Their Time,” Bernstein was
someone whose music had the kind of political orientation that was worth following. But the political messages in Bernstein’s shows were rarely confrontational or didactic … Rather, the politics emerged through the overall ethos of the show …
This strikes me as the approach Michael Jackson brings to many of his songs and short films.
Willa: Yes, we could list many of his films as examples, or even something as subtle as “The Girl is Mine.” There isn’t a single mention of race anywhere in the song, but if you recognize Paul McCartney’s voice and Michael Jackson’s voice – as pretty much everyone did in 1983 – then you know that a black man and a white man are singing about going out with the same woman, and debating which of them she likes better. That was a radical scenario in 1983.
Lisha: You’re right. As embarrassing as it is to admit, that was a radical scenario back in 1983. But the song approached the topic in such a non-confrontational way, I’ll bet many didn’t notice the political implications as they cheerfully absorbed the message and sang along.
Willa: You may be right, Lisha – especially for young listeners. And I think you’re raising a crucial point about art not being too preachy or confrontational.
I’ve been thinking a lot about social change the past few months, and how it actually happens. We know that overcoming racism and other kinds of intolerance was very important to Michael Jackson – there’s ample evidence of that – and he always advocated for a more just society. But at the same time, he never made people who held racist beliefs feel dumb or unenlightened or evil. I think that’s really important for us to keep in mind, for the pragmatic reason that it simply doesn’t work. You can’t change people’s hearts and minds by telling them they’re ignorant. In fact, sometimes I think it has the opposite effect of actually hardening people in their positions.
What does seem to work is art. As you said of On the Town, “It was … the first show to cast actors in an integrated, colorblind way” – something Michael Jackson did repeatedly as well and talked about a number of times, saying he hired talent, not color.
Lisha: With Michael Jackson, there was always that idea of radical inclusivity. As he told Rolling Stone in a 1984 interview,
I happen to be colorblind; I don’t hire color, I hire competence…. Racism is not my motto. One day, I strongly expect every color to love as one family.
Willa: Yes, exactly, and that refusal to abide by social norms of the time, especially in terms of race, was a revolutionary stance for both Bernstein and Michael Jackson. After all, many radio stations refused to play “The Girl is Mine” because of the implied interracial dating … not to mention the audacity of a black man telling a white man (a Beatle, no less!) that she prefers him.
But as radical as this was in 1983, he handles it with a light touch. I think this kind of art that subtly challenges the boundaries of what’s acceptable has taken a leading role in changing popular opinions about race and interracial relationships.
An example of how much social mores have changed is audiences’ reactions – or nonreactions – to the new Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, which in subtle ways has “cast actors in an integrated, colorblind way,” as you said earlier about On the Town. There are a number of characters who have been turned into household objects by an evil enchantment, and they yearn to touch the face of their loved ones but can’t because they’re locked into those inanimate forms – as a piano or dresser or candelabra or whatever. At the end, the spell is broken and those characters we’ve already come to care about revert to human form, and they include two interracial couples. In fact, Beauty and the Beast includes the first two instances of interracial kissing in a Disney film … and almost nothing has been said about that, positively or negatively.
Interracial relationships have become so mainstream they’re even in Disney movies, and they’re pretty much passing without notice. I think in a lot of ways we can attribute that change to visionary artists like Bernstein and Michael Jackson.
Lisha: I agree with you, Willa. It matters when a Leonard Bernstein or Jerome Robbins put together a hand-holding dance chorus that allows people to see and feel what racial equality is about. It matters when Michael Jackson builds a giant bridge onstage and he helps us think through climate change as a problem that requires everyone’s participation, regardless of affiliation, because it’s a crisis that cannot be solved by any one nation or any one group. Our only hope of averting disaster lies in our willingness to collaborate as one. And it’s a failure of the imagination not to foresee how disastrous the outcome could be, if we don’t act now.
Willa: Yes, beautifully said, Lisha. And as Bernstein said in that statement you quoted at the beginning of this post, it is artists who will lead the way.
Lisha: Before we go, I’d like to share the second part of that quote, on turning “the ‘not-yet’ into reality”:
How do you do it? Find out what you can do well, uniquely well, and then do it for all you’re worth. And I don’t mean “doing your own thing” in the hip sense. That’s passivity, that’s dropping out, that’s not doing anything. I’m talking about doing, which means serving your community, whether it’s a tiny town or six continents.
Willa: That’s really inspiring, Lisha.
Lisha: I think so too, Willa. It feels like we need our Bernsteins and Michael Jacksons now more than ever!
Willa: Lisha, so much has changed since we wrote our last post. This emotionally wrenching election has finally ended, and I feel so stunned and demoralized. It feels like our political process is deeply damaged, maybe even broken as many people say, and it seems now more than ever it’s important to talk about alternative forms of power – meaning ways other than politics to bring about social change.
Lisha: This has been such a difficult time for me – confronting how deeply divided we are as a nation. I’m not at all sure that our institutions are strong enough to withstand the pressure they’re under, and I believe it demands a response. As Michael Jackson said in This Is It, “It starts with us. It’s us, or else it will never be done.”
Willa: I think you’re right, Lisha, and that’s a great example. He’s specifically talking about the limitations of government here, and how politicians tend to follow public opinion, rather than lead it. That’s clear in the sentences leading up to the sentences you quoted:
People are always saying, “Oh, they’ll take care of it. The government will do it. Don’t worry, they’ll …” They who? It starts with us. It’s us, or else it will never be done.
Lisha: Michael Jackson made this statement back in 2009 as a part of “Earth Song,” urgently sounding the alarm about climate change. He warned this was going to require our participation if it was ever going to be solved, and he knew time was running out. So I can’t even imagine how he might have felt now, over seven years later, knowing that a climate change denier is about to be nominated as head of the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Willa: I’ve been thinking the exact same thing. It feels like, at a time of great environmental peril, we’re about to take a huge step in the wrong direction. One small ray of hope is that Ivanka Trump arranged a meeting between her father and Al Gore, and afterward Gore called it “a lengthy and very productive session” and said it would “be continued.”
Lisha: Yes, it’s at least a glimmer of hope.
Willa: But I don’t know that we can just sit back and hope it all works out. After all, Michael Jackson never put much faith in politics.
Lisha: True. When Ebony magazine asked him about his political views back in 2007, he said:
To tell you the truth, I don’t follow that stuff. We were raised to not … we don’t look to man to fix the problems of the world, we don’t. They can’t do it. That’s how I see it. It’s beyond us.
Willa: That’s a great quote, Lisha. But while he was skeptical of politics, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t socially engaged. He believed passionately in the power of art, specifically, to change people’s perceptions, ideas, and emotions.
Lisha: He was willing to step up to the plate and do what he knew to do. And I think he made some amazing contributions that we still benefit from today.
Willa: Exactly. In a 1980 interview on 20/20, he described how audiences would respond when he and his brothers performed on stage, and then he linked that response to important cultural changes – the kind of deep emotional changes artists can evoke but politicians can’t. Here’s what he said:
When they’re all holding hands and everybody’s rocking, and all colors of people are there, all races, it’s the most wonderful thing. Politicians can’t even do that.
Lisha: Wow. He was so young when he said that. But it sums up so much about his life’s work and what was yet to come.
Willa: It really does. And we see that focus on deep cultural change not only in his concerts, but in his song lyrics, short films, poems and essays, and other art as well.
However, some of his art didn’t announce itself as art, and often we don’t think of it as art. But this other kind of “art” was also very important at bringing about social change.
Lisha: That’s so very true.
Willa: For example, his meetings at the White House with Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush can be seen as a type of public theater, as we talked about last time. There’s staging and costumes, photography and cinematography, and the distribution of the resulting images around the world – all elements of an elaborate, globally released theatrical production.
And those images of Michael Jackson being treated as a respected guest at the White House, like an honored dignitary, had a political as well as an artistic effect – they helped change public perceptions about the “proper” position of a black man in America. Those images of a black man walking with confidence through the White House may even have helped Americans visualize what it might be like to someday have a black man living in the White House, and in that way may have helped pave the way for Barack Obama.
Lisha: This is such an important point, Willa. Those were very powerful images that helped loosen up old, unconscious ideas about the great white male as being uniquely qualified to lead.
I think a lot of Americans hear the word “racism” and instantly try to disown it, thinking it exclusively means the kind of hateful prejudice expressed by David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan. We know from experience that most Americans aren’t like that, although I will say there has been a shocking degree of tolerance for these groups in this election cycle.
Willa: There really has. That’s one of the most disheartening realizations of this election – that a large percentage of Americans are able to ignore racism, misogyny, xenophobia, religious intolerance, and other kinds of prejudice in exchange for promises of economic gain.
Lisha: This has been so painful for me to come to grips with. And I feel like there’s just so much denial about it. For example, even without harboring any kind of racial animus, racism is still a part of all of our lives in the US, whether we want to admit to it or not. The term “racism” isn’t just about hate groups or hate speech. It also refers to a caste system based on race, where the dominant white culture enjoys a distinct advantage. And that’s something we desperately need to address.
Willa: Absolutely. That’s such an important point, Lisha.
Lisha: But as you said, Michael Jackson used his art to upend that system back in 1984, at least for a moment, when he put on a glitzy military costume and commanded the White House lawn. He upstaged all involved, President and Mrs. Reagan included. I think that was such a smart, bold move that challenged how power operates in a very clever way.
Willa: Yes, and those images of him with President and Mrs. Reagan, and later with President Bush, were widely broadcast and I think they had a powerful political effect around the world.
You know, we began our last post with Frederick Douglass, who was one of the first to realize the power of images in overcoming racism. We also mentioned Douglass visiting Abraham Lincoln, so I thought it was interesting that Dave Chappelle talked about that in a moving monologue on Saturday Night Live after our recent election.
At 9:50 minutes in, Chappelle describes going to a party at the White House a few weeks ago and says this:
Now I’m not sure if this is true, but to my knowledge the first black person who was officially invited to the White House was Frederick Douglass. They stopped him at the gates. Abraham Lincoln had to walk out himself and escort Frederick Douglass into the White House. And it didn’t happen again, as far as I know, until Roosevelt was president. When Roosevelt was president, he had a black guy over and got so much flak from the media that he literally said “I will never have a nigger in this house again.”
Lisha: I have to say that Chappelle’s words hit me hard. How shameful – how utterly disgraceful – that a group of Americans have been thought of and treated in such an abominable way.
Willa: Yes, and by President Roosevelt of all people, who along with his wife Eleanor is often considered a champion of civil rights. In fact, Michael Jackson includes Roosevelt’s picture in the prison version of They Don’t Care about Us.
He also mentions Roosevelt by name in the lyrics, singing these powerful words of praise:
Tell me, what has become of my rights?
Am I invisible because you ignore me?
Your proclamation promised me free liberty, now
I’m tired of being the victim of shame
They’re throwing me in a class with a bad name
I can’t believe this is the land from which I came
You know I really do hate to say it
The government don’t wanna see
But if Roosevelt was living
He wouldn’t let this be, no no
Michael Jackson repeats these last two lines in a later verse, substituting Martin Luther King’s name for Roosevelt’s, which suggests he sees them in somewhat parallel ways. Specifically, he implies that neither Roosevelt nor Martin Luther King would tolerate injustice – they “wouldn’t let this be.”
But if Dave Chappelle is right, that may not be true. Maybe Roosevelt would have bowed to political pressure after all, as presidents often do, and as he himself did when “he had a black guy over” to the White House and capitulated to all the criticism he received for it in the press.
Lisha: Ok, well, let’s stop and think about that. Clearly, there was a limit as to how far he would go in defending the racialized “Other.”
Willa: That’s true, or how far he felt he could go. If politicians get too much beyond the people who elected them, they run the risk of losing their constituency. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he reportedly told an aide, “We have just lost the South for a generation.” And he was right. With a few minor exceptions, the South has gone solidly Republican ever since, though a few states like North Carolina and Virginia seem to be tilting back.
But your point is well taken, Lisha. In general, politicians simply can’t move people the way an artist like Michael Jackson can. If they push their constituencies further than they want to go, they may lose what power they do have.
Lisha: Michael Jackson wrote “They Don’t Care About Us” more than twenty years ago, but it’s just as relevant now as it’s ever been. The song has continued to show up when needed, for example as protesters take to the streets to defend this simple claim: “all lives can’t matter until black lives matter.”
It’s crucial right now that we try to hang on to those lofty ideals we just never got around to carrying out, things like “liberty and justice for all.” Michael Jackson envisioned them in artistic ways that bypassed our rational mind and hit at deeply buried, unconscious ideas and attitudes. It’s up to us to recognize these as meaningful sites of resistance and keep moving forward.
Willa: Absolutely. He talked about this explicitly in films such as They Don’t Care About Us, Black or White, and Can You Feel It, but also in numerous more subtle ways as well. We see some of these more subtle explorations in Thriller and Ghosts, and more radically in the changing color of his skin. We also see it in unconventional art such as the political theater of his visits to the White House.
But there were times when he explicitly used the power and spectacle of politics to draw attention to causes he cared about.
Lisha: One example I’ve been inspired by is the 1993 inaugural gala for then President-elect Bill Clinton. Although Michael Jackson was previously honored by two Republican administrations, when a Democrat was elected, Michael Jackson was again on center stage. He used the opportunity to draw attention to an issue that he deeply cared about, paying tribute to Ryan White with “Gone Too Soon.” It’s worth taking a few minutes to re-watch this and really take it in:
Willa: This is such a powerful moment. And you’re right, Lisha. It’s also a clear example of Michael Jackson using the political theater surrounding the American presidency to raise awareness about a cause he believed in – in this case, AIDS – as well as a person he cared about.
Lisha: I can’t help but notice how moved both President and Secretary Clinton are by this performance. As we all know, they later established a charity foundation that now supplies life-saving medication to over half the world’s AIDS population.
Willa: Yes, and that’s really important to remember. I don’t think Bill Clinton expended much political capital on the AIDS epidemic before Michael Jackson championed the issue during this inauguration performance. And that artistic act has had a long-term effect through the Clinton Foundation, as you say, saving thousands of lives worldwide.
We see a similar focus on raising awareness for specific political issues when Michael Jackson teamed up with former President Carter for the Heal LA Project, which was later expanded to Atlanta also. Michael Jackson talked about the LA project during a speech about his upcoming 1993 Superbowl halftime show, and he cites both President Carter and President Clinton as inspirations:
And of course, he incorporated these themes into the halftime show itself, especially in the grand finale performance of “Heal the World”.
President Carter actually came to Neverland as they worked on the project. Here’s a picture taken during his visit:
Lisha: I love that photo!
Willa: I do too! And there are quite a few photos from the announcement of the Atlanta project in the Omni. Here’s a video slideshow of some of those:
Lisha: Those are wonderful, Willa. Michael Jackson certainly did hang out with the presidents, didn’t he?
Willa: He really did – another trait he shared with Frederick Douglass.
Lisha: Well, we still have more to cover on this topic. To be continued…
Willa: In honor of the rollercoaster of a World Series that just ended last night, Lisha and I would like to share a clip of the Jackson 5 singing the national anthem to open the 1970 World Series. An interesting side note is that the 1970 series was the first to include a black umpire, Emmett Ashford. Six years later, the Jacksons invited Ashford to join them in a guest appearance on their television variety show, The Jacksons. Here’s the clip:
Lisha: Well, it’s a presidential election year here in the U.S. and a pretty tumultuous one at that, much more so than usual it seems. And there is something going on that really has me scratching my head. Willa, have you noticed how many times Michael Jackson’s name has come up in relation to this election?
Willa: Yes, I have!
I told Michael Jackson, I said, If you are poor, you are a poor negro – I would use the N-word – but if you are rich, you are a rich negro. If you are intelligent, intellectual – you are an intellectual negro. If you’re a dancing and sliding and gliding nigger, I mean negro, [laughter] then you are a dancing and sliding and gliding negro. So dare not alienate, because you cannot assimilate. So, you know, you’re going to be a negro until you die.
Willa: You know, Lisha, I always feel very hesitant to speculate about what Michael Jackson would or wouldn’t do today, but I really don’t think he would appreciate Don King’s comments. As soon as I heard that I immediately thought of what King said at the end of the Victory tour:
What Michael’s got to realize is that Michael’s a nigger. It doesn’t matter how great he can sing and dance. I don’t care that he can prance. He’s one of the megastars of the world, but he’s still going to be a nigger megastar. He must accept that. Not only must he understand that, he’s got to accept it and demonstrate that he wants to be a nigger. Why? To show that a nigger can do it. (320)
Lisha: Wow. That’s from Randy Taraborrelli’s book, right? It’s almost identical to what Don King just said!
Willa: It is strikingly similar, isn’t it? And according to Taraborrelli – who I realize can be a problematic source sometimes – Michael Jackson was so upset by King’s comments he wanted to sue him. Apparently he told his lawyer, John Branca, “That guy has been pushing my last nerve since Day One.”
Lisha: Hmmm, I wonder. Was Don King really dressing down Michael Jackson when he said this? Or was he making an important point about the racial divide in American culture? Taraborrelli definitely gives the impression that King was putting Michael Jackson in his place for not agreeing to perform in another leg of the Victory tour. But I’m not so sure I buy it, especially given King’s recent statement.
Willa: Or maybe he was doing both. What I mean is, I think Don King is saying there is an unbridgeable division in the US between black and white, and Michael Jackson is a fool if he believes he can cross that divide.
Lisha: Yes, you’re right. As King just said, “dare not alienate, because you cannot assimilate.”
You know, there’s yet another account of this story in Jermaine Jackson’s book, You Are Not Alone: Michael Through a Brother’s Eyes. Jermaine recalls Don King’s remarks were made in a completely different context. Here’s how he tells it:
Don didn’t win awards for tact and diplomacy, and his giant ego was the reason he was a promoter. He was brash but effective. Had you seen him – the loudest mouth – and Michael – the quietest soul – interacting, you might have thought, There’s the kid with the embarrassing uncle he can’t help but find funny. I’ll never forget being in a meeting when we were discussing something about the show’s direction and Michael was talking about how he wanted to pay the fans back and keep pushing higher.
“Michael!’ said Don, cutting dead the monologue. “Remember this. It don’t matter whether you’re a rich nigger, a poor nigger or just a nigger. No matter how big you get, this industry’s still gonna treat you like a nigger.” In other words, and in his opinion, you’ll always be a servant to the music industry, so don’t ever think of becoming more powerful than that. Everyone in the room froze. If the music industry blew smoke up everyone’s ass, Don blew in an icy blast of straight talk.
It was Michael who was the first to laugh, cracking the suspended silence. He found it funny, in a shocking way, and wasn’t offended. None of us was. A black man had been addressing black men, and that kind of talk was hardly foreign to someone from Gary, Indiana. (243-244)
Willa: Wow, that is a radically different interpretation, isn’t it? It’s eye-opening to put Taraborrelli’s and Jermaine Jackson’s very different accounts side by side like this. It really demonstrates how the same story can be perceived and interpreted in dramatically different ways by different viewers.
Lisha: Yes, it does. Jermaine seems to think Don King was making a larger point about systemic racism in the music industry, and that’s the way he felt his brothers understood it as well.
Willa: Well, that’s a really important distinction, Lisha, that casts the situation in a very different light. But it’s difficult to know what Michael Jackson’s true feelings were. He encouraged frank talk about race and racism, suggesting he would appreciate King’s comments as Jermaine says, but it’s also well established that he did not want King to be perceived as speaking for him during the Victory tour. In fact, he issued written instructions that “King may not communicate with anyone on Michael’s behalf without prior permission.”
Even before that, Michael Jackson made it very clear he did not want Don King hired as the promoter of the Victory tour. However, his father and his brothers supported King because he promised them a big payoff. So Michael Jackson was overruled and Don King was hired, but ultimately he was proven right, I think – Don King did not have the experience to handle the Victory tour. And all of that history may have some effect on how Jermaine portrays things. He seems to be saying that, despite the surface tensions, deep down Michael Jackson really liked Don King, and that may or may not be true.
Lisha: I agree with you. And I certainly don’t mean to be taking up for Don King! My guess is that boxing is a far cry from the world of concert promotion, so I would imagine King was out of his depth when he worked on the Victory tour. But it does sound like he was trying to be helpful when he made these remarks about the way American culture and industry intersect.
And I think that’s what King is getting at in his pitch for Donald Trump, too. He emphasizes in his speech that his support for Trump is based on a belief that the entire American political system needs to be demolished and rebuilt, because it is a system based on inequity towards women and blacks.
Willa: And that is a real call to arms that has been lost in the controversy surrounding his use of the N-word, which Michael Jackson himself used in “This Time Around.” I think they were both using it to make a point about race and perception, so for me the N-word itself is not the issue in this case. I agree with you that Don King is making a strong statement about systemic racism, and unfortunately there is a lot of truth to his words.
However, King also seems to be saying that racism is unchanging and unchangeable – that no matter what Michael Jackson does, people in the music industry – and people more generally – will always view him, and all people of color, through the lens of racism. And I think Michael Jackson would strongly disagree with that.
While he did speak out forcefully at times about racism, especially as he became older, his entire career was built on the conviction that, through his art and his unique cultural position, he could change people’s beliefs and perspectives. He saw art as a powerful force for change, and I think he fervently believed he could challenge bigotry and other prejudices and make a lasting difference in people’s hearts and minds.
Lisha: I wholeheartedly agree. Michael Jackson’s steadfast refusal to accept cultural norms, even in the face of tremendous backlash, had a powerful impact on American society – far more than we probably realize. And I wonder if rather than discouraging Michael Jackson, King ended up actually encouraging him to defy the very limitations he was being asked to negotiate.
Willa: That’s an interesting question, Lisha. I can imagine that King’s advice to accept that he would never be anything more than “a dancing and sliding and gliding negro” would fill him with ambition to prove King wrong.
Lisha: Exactly. I can’t imagine it otherwise, actually.
But Don King isn’t the only one name dropping Michael Jackson in this election! Trump himself has gone out of his way to let people know about his friendship with Michael Jackson, and I think it speaks volumes about how Michael Jackson actually pushed the culture forward. For example, here’s a Jonathan Ernst/Reuters photo that ran with an article about Donald Trump’s success in the Republican primaries:
Apparently one of Trump’s supporters requested an autograph for this photo. But instead of just signing it and handing it back, Trump turned around and proudly displayed it to the press corps. This really struck me as a power move. Like, hey, see how awesome and powerful I am? Here’s proof I’ve hung out with Michael Jackson!
Willa: That’s an interesting way of interpreting this, Lisha, and I think you might be onto something. After all, the very next day he told Anderson Cooper that “Michael Jackson was actually a very good friend of mine.” Here’s a video clip of that interview:
Lisha: I mean, think about it. As part of his pitch for why he should be taken seriously as a candidate for the U.S. presidency, Donald Trump goes out of his way to talk about his friendship with Michael Jackson!
Willa: Yes, and I’ve been trying to figure out what it means. In that interview, Donald Trump emphasizes that he “knew the real story of Michael Jackson,” as he says, and was an insider into his world. I disagree with much of what he says about Michael Jackson – both here and other times when he’s talked about him – which suggests he really didn’t know him that well at all, but I’m struck by how eager he is to claim a close friendship.
Maybe it’s a power move, as you say, or maybe it’s a way of showing he’s in touch with pop culture and not just a businessman. After all, Trump has a lot of respect for the power of pop culture. This is a man who starred on The Apprentice for 14 years – a show that featured LaToya Jackson at one point – and used it to redeem himself after the collapse of his casinos, his airline, his entire empire. Instead of being a real estate magnate, he’s now a celebrity, and his fortune is built on his name rather than physical assets. A man like that would value the power of Michael Jackson’s celebrity, but I’m not sure he ever understood him as a person or an artist.
Lisha: Excellent point. I agree that Trump’s own words suggest he didn’t really know Michael Jackson that well. Even brother Jermaine spoke out about it and seemed pretty offended by what was said.
Willa: Yes, as Jermaine tweeted after the interview, “Name-dropping Michael don’t make you cool and won’t win you votes. Especially when using botched facts.”
Lisha: Jermaine also didn’t mind suggesting that Michael Jackson would not have supported Trump politically, either. But one of the interesting things about Michael Jackson is that he seemed comfortable with so many different people all across the political spectrum.
Willa: That’s certainly true! And it’s also true that Michael Jackson seems to have known Donald Trump for many years. For example, he was at his side during the dedication of the Taj Mahal in 1990. Here’s a video clip of that:
Lisha: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen clips of this in various reports about Donald Trump. One measure of Trump’s success seems to be how he attracted the attention of Michael Jackson. A reporter who covered the Taj Mahal event, Alex Connock, recently wrote a fascinating article about it for The Spectator. He describes the frenzy Michael Jackson created at the opening of Trump’s casino: “If Queen Cleopatra herself had risen from the dead and checked in using a solid gold Amex card there could have been no more excitement in reception than that which greeted Jacko’s arrival.” Sorry for the insulting moniker, but I think this description captures the scene perfectly!
Connock also describes being on a private plane with them after the event, when Michael Jackson produced a copy of the National Enquirer and showed an article to Trump!
Willa: Wasn’t that interesting? Can you imagine Michael Jackson and Donald Trump sitting side by side reading the National Enquirer? That is too funny! Apparently there was an article in it about Trump, and they were reading it and talking about it. I wish Connock had taken a picture of that. …
Lisha: Yes, he does too! But he said he was too intimidated to pick up the camera and shoot the picture. Can you imagine how much a photo of Trump and Michael Jackson reading the Enquirer would have been worth?
Willa: I’m sure we’d be seeing a lot of it these days! I’ve also heard that Michael Jackson had an apartment in Trump Tower for many years. Do you know anything about that? If that’s true, I imagine they did cross paths on occasion.
Lisha: I haven’t really seen much about it until recently. The apartment is now up for sale so there has been some publicity about that, including some nice photos.
The whole idea of these two men hanging out together, both of them cultural shorthand for wealth and celebrity, definitely generates some interest.
Willa: Yes, and to some extent I can see why Michael Jackson might have enjoyed spending time with Trump. He is definitely a colorful figure – kind of like P.T. Barnum in a way – and Michael Jackson was certainly drawn to colorful characters.
Lisha: Every time I hear Trump claim that all publicity is good publicity, I have to wonder if Michael Jackson schooled him on the ways of P.T. Barnum!
Willa: I do too!
Lisha: In many ways Trump is a showman, too, something that seems to come in handy these days when you’re running for president. Did you see the funny Jimmy Fallon spoof of Trump’s dramatic entrance at the Republican National Convention?
Willa: I did! The “Smooth Criminal” segment was wonderful!
Lisha: It totally cracked me up!
Willa: But I think it’s important to note that while Michael Jackson does seem to have spent some time with Donald Trump over the years, he also subtly criticizes him in “Money,” as the MJ Academia Project pointed out several years ago. Unfortunately, their videos are no longer available, and now the transcripts seem to be gone also. But in the soundscape of “Money,” Michael Jackson calls out a list of ruthless and unethical tycoons, and he includes Trump’s name on that list.
The entire song is a harsh critique of the love of money, and it begins this way:
Lie for it
Spy for it
Kill for it
Die for it
So you call it trust
But I say it’s just
In the devil’s game
Of greed and lust
They don’t care
They’d do me for the money
They don’t care
They use me for the money
So you go to church
Read the holy word
In the scheme of life
It’s all absurd
They don’t care
They’d kill for the money
Do or dare
The thrill for the money
You’re saluting the flag
Your country trusts you
Now you’re wearing a badge
You’re called the just few
And you’re fighting the wars
A soldier must do
I’ll never betray or deceive you my friend but
If you show me the cash
Then I will take it
If you tell me to cry
Then I will fake it
If you give me a hand
Then I will shake it
You’ll do anything for money
That’s a harsh indictment. And if you listen carefully to the background sounds of “Money,” at 3:18 minutes in Michael Jackson says, “If you want it, earn it with dignity,” and then he calls out a list of robber-barons who most definitely did not “earn it with dignity”: “Vanderbilt, Morgan, Trump, Rockefeller, Hinde, Getty, Getty, Getty, …”
Lisha: This segment names some of the most ruthless and unethical business tycoons in the nation’s history. They’re often called the robber-barons, as you said, and that term isn’t meant to be flattering. It was initially used to critique Cornelius Vanderbilt as both a criminal and an aristocrat. The robber-barons were despised for their predatory business practices, but because of their power and wealth, they also enjoyed a great deal of prestige.
For example, the Rockefeller name is now synonymous with privilege and wealth, but at the time, John D. Rockefeller was called the most hated man in America. He was one of the first to employ a public relations manager – a totally new concept in his day – to combat the negative publicity he received.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Lisha. I didn’t know that. No wonder Michael Jackson calls him out in “Money”!
I also noticed that the list of names in “Money” ends with a repetition of “Getty, Getty, Getty, … ” J. Paul Getty made his money in oil, and at one time was the wealthiest man in America. Decades later, his grandson Mark Getty used some of that inheritance to create Getty Images, which includes many photos of Michael Jackson in its holdings, both iconic ones and scandalous ones.
Lisha: You’re right! Getty is singled out for repeat. And perhaps it’s no coincidence, given that Getty owns the rights to so many Michael Jackson photographs.
Willa: It doesn’t seem coincidental to me. And it also seems significant that Trump’s name is on the list. I don’t think Michael Jackson would have included him if he really respected him or held great affection for him.
Lisha: Interesting, isn’t it? I mean, as far as influence goes, I would guess Trump is kind of small potatoes compared to the other industrialists and financiers on the list. So maybe it is more about the unscrupulous ways these men achieved their wealth, rather than their influence and social prominence.
I also noticed that Donald Trump’s wife, Melania, mentioned Michael Jackson in an interview with DuJour, a magazine that caters to America’s ultra-wealthy 1 percent. Rolling Stone also commented on that interview because she describes this charming, intimate dinner party with Michael Jackson. To me, it gives the impression that she is indeed quite accustomed to a privileged and powerful lifestyle.
Willa: It was an interesting story, wasn’t it? And if her memory is right, it sounds like Michael Jackson felt at ease with her – as she said, “we were laughing so hard.”
Lisha: It’s such an endearing story! And impressive. Not everyone has that kind of access to Michael Jackson.
Willa: That’s true, though at the time she met Michael Jackson, not everyone wanted to meet him. I’m not sure of the exact timing, but she implies it was after her marriage to Donald Trump, which was in January of 2005. So she must have met Michael Jackson either after the 2005 trial or just before – a time when his public image was perhaps at its lowest point, and a lot of people were treating him like he was toxic. I have to say, it made me feel a little kinder toward the Trumps that they were inviting Michael Jackson into their home at that terrible period in his life.
So all this adds another layer to this entire situation – not just what it says about Donald and Melania Trump and their motives for name-dropping Michael Jackson, but also what it says about the rehabilitation of Michael Jackson’s image since his death. I mean, Trump tends to closely align himself with popular opinion – for example, he was for the Iraq War when it was popular, turned against the war when it became unpopular, and now claims he was against it all along despite recorded evidence to the contrary.
So I have a feeling if Trump had run for president in the 2008 elections, he wouldn’t have been boasting so much about his “very good friend” Michael Jackson, or flashing his picture around in front of photographers. The fact that he’s doing so now is a pretty strong indicator that Michael Jackson’s image has shifted considerably since 2009.
Lisha: Good point.
Willa: But what exactly are popular perceptions of Michael Jackson now? How does Trump see him? And what does he hope to gain by aligning himself with him? Those are the questions I’ve been wondering about….
Lisha: I can’t help thinking about your insightful conversation with Susan Woodward a while back, about how Michael Jackson conveyed a real sense of power, even with all the negative publicity he faced. Trump is clearly aligning himself with that power, and also with the narrative that media portrayals can be unfair and very misleading. He told Fox News:
I remember when Michael Jackson died, I was friends with Michael Jackson. I knew Michael Jackson very well, and then everybody commented on Michael Jackson. I said to myself, you know, it’s amazing, he didn’t even know those people. But it’s like that. The world of politics is a very strange world and people want to get on and they say things. They have no idea what they’re talking about, and I watch it and I listen to it all the time.
Willa: Yes, that’s true. And apparently media biases were a topic of conversation between Donald Trump and Michael Jackson for many years – for example, when they were reading the National Enquirer together in 1990, as you mentioned earlier.
Lisha: There’s something else that I wonder about that might have come up in conversation. Tom Barrack, whose company owns the majority of Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, has been named as one of Trump’s top economic advisors. In fact, it was Barrack who introduced Trump and his daughter at the Republican National Convention.
Willa: Really? I didn’t make that connection. That’s kind of shocking to me, for reasons I can’t quite explain.
Lisha: It doesn’t sit well with me either, given that Michael Jackson’s Estate put out a statement that they were “saddened” by the intended sale of Neverland Ranch. I saw some tweets and other evidence that Michael Jackson’s children wished to keep Neverland Ranch in the family, but it looks like that isn’t going to happen.
Willa: And as we talked about in a couple of posts with Brad Sundberg, Neverland was much more than just a piece of property. It was one of Michael Jackson’s most immersive and experiential works of art, and now it’s been dismantled. That’s just tragic, on so many levels.
Lisha: For sure.
Willa: Well, Michael Jackson certainly had a long and complicated history with Donald Trump – and with the Clintons as well. After all, he sang at Bill Clinton’s inauguration celebration. And he interacted with numerous other presidents over his long career. We’ll begin taking a look at that in our next post.
Lisha: Can’t wait to dig in!
A quick note: With the recent opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., C-Span posted a wonderful YouTube video of director Lonnie Bunch discussing a Michael Jackson costume that the museum has acquired: